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Newfoundlanders open Mary Brown’s Diner franchise in western Florida

Paul Shelley and Kathy Goudie are the proud franchisees of the first Mary Brown’s Diner in the United States. The pair opened the Englewood, Fla., location four weeks ago and business has been booming ever since.
Paul Shelley and Kathy Goudie are the proud franchisees of the first Mary Brown’s Diner in the United States. The pair opened the Englewood, Fla., location four weeks ago and business has been booming ever since.

Snowbirds in Florida no longer have to wait until they get back to Canada to feed their craving for a Big Mary and taters.

The town of Englewood, about halfway between St. Petersburg and Fort Myers on the Gulf of Mexico side of the sunshine state, is now home to the first Mary Brown’s location in the United States.

Four weeks in, business is booming.
“The first 10 days were crazy. We couldn’t handle it,” says Paul Shelley, the former Conservative MHA from Baie Verte who co-owns the Mary Brown’s Diner with his partner, Kathy Goudie, a former MHA from Deer Lake.

“We have 60 seats and we were doing over 600 people a day. From the minute we opened until we closed, we couldn’t cook it fast enough.”

Things have slowed, due largely to the bulk of Canadian visitors having returned home for the summer months, but only slightly and they’re still busier than any other restaurant on the street. Shelley says locals are already developing the same affinity for the chain that exists in over 140 places across Canada.

“They come in and find out the story of Mary Brown’s and how it’s really a Virginia-style chicken, with the quality of the chicken … people are loyal to us already,” says Shelley.

“We’ve got people here from Alabama, Kentucky, people that know southern fried chicken and they leave here shaking my hand saying it’s the best southern fried chicken they’ve ever tasted.”

Triton’s Greg Roberts, Mary Brown’s CEO and owner, calls the chain’s new American customers “chicken connoisseurs.”

“When I go down to the southern states, how I talk about chicken, they do, too,” says Roberts. “So I knew people would appreciate all the work we put into our chicken and I knew we would do well down there.”

 

Hatching a plan
The decision for Mary Brown’s to enter the American market wasn’t made on a whim.
After joining Roberts and his wife on a cruise a year and a half ago, Shelley and Goudie invited him to visit with them in western Florida. As Shelley tells it, after a solo Sunday drive through the region, Roberts decided Englewood, a quiet township of about 15,000 was the perfect spot and the idea was pitched.
“I didn’t think so at first because that wasn’t my plan,” admits Shelley. “Kathy has the experience at restaurants. She used to work with her mother at the Deer Lake Motel and the Big Stop out there and other places. So I said, well, let’s go for it.”

They purchased a building that once housed a popular Dairy Queen and was conveniently located across the street from a brand new 1,500-student high school and opened in late April. (Today, 21 of the 50 employees are high school students.)

They chose to open a diner — just the third in the chain, joining the Torbay Road location and another in Port Elgin, Ont. — because it felt like a better fit for the area.

“What I wanted to do in the U.S. was start with our best foot forward, take all of our learnings over the last number of years and create something great, something we know if we were able to do it all over again and start from scratch, what would we do, and that’s what we put into that store,” says Roberts.
“If we went in with just a regular Mary Brown’s I think we would do well, but by going in with a diner, we’re filling a need in the communities. People want convenient food, they want it fast and they want it less expensive.”

While location and an already brand-loyal clientele of Newfoundlanders and Canadians have certainly played a part in the early success, Roberts is convinced there’s another key ingredient to the success.

“If you’ve got the right operators, you can put them in Timbuktu and they’re going to be successful, and it took me 15 years to figure that one out,” says Roberts, who lauds Shelley and Goudie’s business acumen and efforts to become more involved with the community at large.

“They get it, they’re super particular over their operations, they’re doing an amazing job and the place has been on wheels since we opened.”

The diner also allows for a much more diverse menu than what’s offered at a standard Mary Brown’s location, one that includes a taste of Newfoundland fare such as toutons, pea soup, fish and chips using Atlantic cod, baked beans and an increasingly popular seafood chowder.

“We run out of chowder pretty well every day, we just can’t keep up with (it),” gushes Shelley.

“You got the mixture of the southern fried, we stir in the things we’ve got and that’s why we’ve got so many returnees coming back saying, ‘I’ve got to try this thing.’”

 

Further Egg-spansion
If all continues to go well, it’s likely this won’t be the only Mary Brown’s Diner owned and operated by Newfoundlanders in Florida for long.

Shelley says he is asked about franchising opportunities at least once a day, and Roberts is already eyeing plans for a cluster of locations between St. Pete’s and Sarasota before moving throughout the entire state.

But as particular as he is about the quality of the product, Roberts is even more committed to letting the right people into the franchise coupe.

“I’m super proud of the stores and I could probably have a few hundred stores right now if I give in and do what everyone else did and sell master rights and sell to people that can do 10, 20 or 30 stores. I’d prefer mom and pops running them hands on. 
“I’d rather have 140 stores I’m proud of than 500 stores that I’d be embarrassed to tell you to go to.”

 

kenn.oliver@thetelegram.com
Twitter: kennoliver79

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